While many grandparents are excited to become the “built-in babysitter” for their grandkids and can’t get enough time with them, some grandparents definitely don’t want that to be their title — for a myriad of reasons. Whether you have a fabulous relationship with your in-laws or a rocky relationship, it’s always tough when dealing with in-laws who don’t help with grandchildren — or even worse, toxic grandparents. Family dynamics and relationships can be tricky things to navigate, especially if the people that you’re dealing with are your in-laws, not your own immediate family. Throw little kids in to the mix and it’s an entirely different ballgame. Experts explain what to do when grandparents aren’t as involved in your kids’ life as you’d like them to be and how to set healthy boundaries so everyone can feel loved, happy, and fulfilled.
Why don’t my in-laws have any interest in their grandchildren?
There could be many reasons your in-laws don’t help with grandchildren, or aren’t responding to your child in the way that you hoped, says Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and registered play therapist. Their disengagement could be caused by a not-so-serious problem or a major problem. “On the not-so-serious end of things, it's possible your child is simply at an age that their grandparents feel less comfortable with, or didn't particularly enjoy parenting themselves,” she says.
For example, many people find newborn babies very intimidating — especially if you aren't as physically adept as you once were, Lear adds. “Maybe your child's grandparent has always had a hard time connecting with toddlers, but is fantastic with older children once they become more verbal and can carry a conversation,” she says.
Consider your own role in the relationship
It’s important to also take your own expectations into account, according to Lear. If your expectations about what grandparents should do simply don’t line up with what your in-laws envisioned, that could be causing issues.
“Many grandparents don't want to become the default babysitter,” explains Kaitlin Soule, a licensed therapist with a specialty in anxiety and maternal mental health. That may be something that you simply need to accept about your in-laws. “But, when grandparents seem to want little or nothing to do with their grandchildren it can be a painful and confusing experience.”
Why in-laws don’t help with grandchildren
“While we can't know exactly why a grandparent has made the choice to be uninvolved, we can remember that it likely has much more to do with their issues than ours,” she says. “Baggage or issues they haven't worked through (i.e. their own trauma, rigidity, addiction, guilt, shame, etc.) are likely affecting their ability to show up for their grandkids.”
If your in-laws call out your parenting style as a reason for their lack of involvement, Soule points out that you don’t have to accept that reason at face value. “Healthy adults are able to put that aside in order to find a way to show up for their grandchildren in some capacity,” she explains.
It could also be based on your relationship with the in-laws, according to Lear. “If there are difficult dynamics in your relationship with your in-laws, those can impact their bond with your kids, too,” she says. Which leads to the more serious end of the spectrum of reasons. “Finally, on the more serious end of the spectrum, you want to rule out any possible biases or prejudices a grandparent might hold that could be negatively influencing how they perceive your child,” Lear says.
What to do with uninvolved grandparents
Don’t give up hope just yet. If your relationship with your in-laws needs a little work, there are ways to work towards repair. “Before jumping to conclusions, take a step back and question whether what you're really dealing with is a mismatch in expectations, rather than genuine disinterest,” Lear suggests. Ask yourself:
- Are you close with the grandparents or in-laws yourself?
- Did you spend a lot of time together and offer each other a lot of help before your child was born?
- Do you or your spouse recall what your own parents (or in-laws) were like as parents when you were around the age your child is right now?
- Could it be that your in-laws are showing affection in unexpected ways or ways you didn’t consider to be ‘love’ at first?
There’s also a difference between not being able — physically, financially, emotionally — to help you out and not wanting to give attention to a child. Again, it’s essential to be sure your expectations are in line with your in-laws’ capacity.
“Parents are so over extended these days and childcare is so hard to come by that it's only natural to hope that grandparents will be able to lend a helping hand. In reality, not all grandparents will be willing or able to do this. They may not have the physical or emotional capacity they once did to care for energetic little kids,” she says.
“It's a painful truth, but at the end of the day we can only change our own behavior. While it's hard, the best thing we can do is work towards acceptance and focusing on the things we can control,” Soule explains.
What are signs of a toxic grandparent?
The question of whether your in-law is a toxic grandparent is a different story all together and would require a very different approach to the relationship. Signs of a toxic grandparent or in-law include:
- Not respecting boundaries
- Playing favorites
Toxic people usually use manipulation as a way to cause fractures in relationships, Soule explains. When it comes to grandparents, this usually shows up as telling their grandchildren damaging things about other family members. If you notice a pattern of consistently defying the boundaries you've made clear — that’s definitely problematic and could indicate toxicity in the relationship.
If you notice that each time you have a confrontation or difficult conversation with your in-laws about their behavior, you walk away feeling like you’re the one who did something wrong, that is gaslighting. “If you choose to continue to have a relationship with a toxic grandparent, it’s critical that you create, set, and hold boundaries,” Soule says.
Whether you need your in-laws to spend more time with their grandchildren or simply hope that they will, clear, non-judgmental communication is key. Taking some time to turn inward and consider your own expectations — and whether or not they are realistic — is a healthy step to take, too.
Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and registered play therapist
Kaitlin Soule, a licensed therapist with a specialty in anxiety and maternal mental health